in From the Archives

The road to St. Petersburg

by Antti Häyrynen

The founding of the city of St. Petersburg in 1703 meant the birth of a new orientation, a source of innovative ideas and of growth potential for the Finns. Building materials and labour were imported for the new metropolis from neighbouring Finland right from the early stages, and many of the city's bridges and palaces rest on Finnish granite.

Stand thou, O Peter’s citadel
Like Russia steadfast and enduring
And let the elements rebel
No more but be subdued; your fury
Contain, O Finnish waves, and quell,
Forget the old feud and endeavour
To let it buried stay forever,
And undisturbed leave Peter sleep!..

Aleksandr Pushkin: The Bronze Horseman

The founding of the city of St. Petersburg in 1703 meant the birth of a new orientation, a source of innovative ideas and of growth potential for the Finns. Building materials and labour were imported for the new metropolis from neighbouring Finland right from the early stages, and many of the city’s bridges and palaces rest on Finnish granite.

The area known as “Old Finland”, i.e. the province of Vyborg (Viipuri), had passed into the hands of the Russians as the result of the Great Northern War of 1700-1721 between King Charles XII of Sweden (to which the rest of Finland belonged until 1809) and Peter I of Russia. The proximity of St. Petersburg was to be a major factor in the development of the region and, in particular, the town of Vyborg.

Music occupied a prominent role in the life of cosmopolitan Vyborg, and especially its German-speaking merchants. The Russian-German upper class invited artists to come and perform, and the fact that St. Petersburg was so close made it possible to hold various arts events, for which a demand already existed.

The people of Vyborg were very much aware of the latest trends in the arts in the early half of the 19th century (by which time all Finland had been annexed to Russia as an Autonomous Grand Duchy). Weber’s Der Freischütz was one of the first Finnish opera productions to be staged in 1829, only eight years after the opera’s premiere.

It was also in Vyborg that Finland’s first theatre was built in 1832, and the theatre and its musicians around which irregular but nevertheless frequent music events began to develop. The international stars travelling to St. Petersburg or relaxing at Terijoki (Zelenogorsk) often performed in Vyborg. But as Pushkin points out in The Bronze Horseman, the Finns contributed much to St. Petersburg.


Capitals of the Empire and the Grand Duchy

In 1812, Finland having been annexed to Russia three years before, Helsinki was raised to the status of capital of the Grand Duchy and from 1827, when the former capital, Turku, was destroyed by fire, it also became the intellectual centre. Turku was for historical reasons more oriented towards the former motherland, Sweden, but Helsinki was very much the centre of the Imperial administration and culture. The university was transferred from Turku to Helsinki, renamed after the Tsar, Alexander, and became the primary channel for the expression of musical aspirations.

The period of autonomy under Russian rule was for Finland one of sustained peace and economic growth. The musical infrastructure with its music institute (1881) and orchestra (1882) developed relatively late, but military bands and other forms of music-making had long ago found their way to the city with the Russian administration and soldiers. The Russian garrison theatre was later to serve as the home of the Finnish National Opera from 1919 to 1993.

The cultural pull of St. Petersburg had been felt in Finland ever since the late 18th century. Thomas Byström, one of the earliest Finnish composers, studied there before embarking on a military career in Sweden. While visiting St. Petersburg in 1805 Bernhard Henrik Crusell, a man born in Uusikaupunki who had played in the military band of Sveaborg, the island fortress guarding the mouth of Helsinki, had caught the attention of the Tsar and in consequence dedicated his F minor clarinet concerto completed in 1815 to Alexander I.

Politically, this was not a wise move, however, for it did not stand him in good stead at the Swedish court. Had he known it, he might perhaps have drawn consolation from the knowledge that his clarinet quartets made an indelible impression on the young Mikhail Glinka who, on hearing them at Novospasskoye, decided to become a composer. The Finnish-Russian arts exchange of the early 19th century was, however, still very modest: culture in the Finnish language was only just taking its first steps.

During the 19th century the capital of the Russian Empire, St. Petersburg, grew and attracted civil servants, artisans, soldiers, prostitutes and artists from Finland. The railway from the capital of the Grand Duchy to St. Petersburg was built in 1860-70, was used to carry agricultural produce, paper, firewood, and brought economic prosperity. By the latter half of the century St. Petersburg, with its Finnish minority of 24,000, could well have been called Finland’s second biggest city.

Russian artists likewise popped across to the neighbouring dependency to give concerts and take a holiday. The Terijoki artists’ colony on the Karelian Isthmus had long been famous, and it seemed only natural to break the journey from St. Petersburg to Stockholm in Vyborg or Helsinki, even though, as in the case of Rakhmaninov, it might mean that the conductor had to politely wipe the dust from the piano keys before the soloist could begin his performance.

The newly-wed Stravinsky brought his bride to Finland for their honeymoon, to admire the Imatra falls known as the “little Niagara”, as he later recalled. Aleksandr Glazunov recorded some of his memories of his visit to Finland in his Finnish Fantasy op. 88, using the Lutheran choral Ein’ feste Burg (which holds great ceremonial implications for the Finns) and a couple of folk tunes in minor keys to give a little local colour. Artists also travelled in the opposite direction, and a number of Finnish opera singers, of whom the best-known was possibly the coloratura soprano Alma Fohström-von Rode, spent many years at the Imperial Opera in St. Petersburg.


Russian influences and enmity

The rise of a national culture in Finland in the closing decades of the 19th century was marked by conflict with the Swedish-speaking elite but soon – as the demands of the Russian masters became increasingly pressing – by distrust of the Russian regime as well. The Imperial administration tightened its grip on the Grand Duchy from the 1890s onwards and even threatened the nation’s autonomy with its demands for Russification.

Attitudes to the latter fell into one of two camps: the Old Finns, who were more moderate and prepared to make concessions, and the Young Finns, who demanded more radical measures. The culturally-minded tended to subscribe to the latter way of thinking, and there was a flood of works in nationalist spirit symbolising freedom from the Russian yoke.

At the time, works by Sibelius such as Finlandia, The Song of the Spider and The Song of the Athenians were taken as symbolising the resistance to Russia, as were the first and second symphonies. Sibelius was born in the little town of Hämeenlinna, into a Swedish-speaking family, attended a Finnish-speaking school, but received his initial grounding in music at the Swedish-speaking Music Institute of Martin Wegelius with is Wagnerian-German orientation.

In his nationalist sympathies Sibelius soon joined the Young Finns camp, but he also entertained fairly liberal views on Russia. Through his wife Aino’s family, the Järnefelts, he became acquainted with Russian-German aristocrats and culture, and he soon noted that he had a lot in common with Tchaikovsky. Furthermore, he appeared to have learnt from the Russians in the construction of the finales to his works.

On a smaller scale Sibelius was also influenced by the Tolstoyism of his writer brother-in-law Arvid Järnefelt — so much so that he once proposed to Aino in a letter that he get his boots on and move into a little cottage and till the soil. While this may no doubt be regarded as idealistic fantasising, the life he led at his new home, Ainola, completed in 1904 was indeed simple and unpretentious. Even in old age he still did not want to have drains or any other modern conveniences installed in the house.

While working on his Kullervo symphony Sibelius was studying Dostoevsky’s Crime and Punishment and incorporated the Slavonic epic element in his mindscape. In the early 20th century he also met the politically hounded Maxim Gorky, being hidden at Helsinki at the time by a group of Finnish artists. He also regarded himself as continuing the symphonic legacy of Shostakovich, though possibly due to a literary rather than a musical affinity.

Sibelius made a strong cultural-political statement in the early 1890s by giving nationalist music a markedly eastward-looking identity. In this respect he was, of course, influenced more by the rune melodies preserved in Karelia than by things Russian, but he nevertheless set Finnish culture on a course that distanced it from the Scandinavian-Germanic mainstream. The consequences were more audible in the work of his successors than of Sibelius himself: the eastern dimension of the Finnish soul has been revealed in numerous works of a sentimental, melancholic or shamanistic nature.

Sibelius the composer also attracted attention in Russia. Of the Russian conductors, Sergei Koussevitzky became a particular champion of his music. Meanwhile Sibelius conducted the premiere of Pohjola’s Daughter in a series of concerts arranged by Aleksandr Ziloti during a visit to St. Petersburg in 1906. The work was received with great enthusiasm.

The following year Sibelius’s third symphony took a step in a different direction – a step that did not pass unnoticed in the St. Petersburg press: “He appears to make frequent stays in Berlin, London and Paris, where the decadence of Debussy, Strauss and Elgar is highly catching. We must therefore take our leave of the former Sibelius, the enchanting interpreter of the tales of his homeland.”


St. Petersburg, school for modernists

In the early nineteen hundreds relations between the dutiful Finns and the Tsarist administration became inflamed, yet even so the Finnish opposition was not so aggressive as the Russian. Sibelius joined in the cultural protest with works such as the Press Celebrations music (Scènes historiques I-II) as a protest against the Russian censorship. The Tsar’s viceregent, Governor General Nikolai Bobrikov (later assassinated in Finland), nevertheless showed a spark of humour in auctioning his Imperial box “because the proceeds were going to a good cause”.

Russian music continued to be in fashion, however. Some Finnish composers, such as Leevi Madetoja and Toivo Kuula, sought inspiration in another direction, Paris, though the music of both also bears traces of Slavonic sentimentality. Madetoja’s Kullervo Overture has not altogether benefited from being compared to Tchaikovsky’s Romeo and Juliet. The works of Erkki Melartin also display a fine understanding of Russian romanticism and string quartets by him were performed in St. Petersburg.

Russians headed the list of the foreign composers familiar in Finland, and the works of Aleksandr Skryabin were immediately performed in Helsinki. All three symphonies by him and his Poem of Ecstasy were thus heard in Finland between 1911 and 1922. The influence of Skryabin is further reflected in the works of the three great 1920s modernists Aarre Merikanto, Väinö Raitio and Ernst Pingoud.

Merikanto and Raitio had studied in Moscow but, swept along by the anti-Russian atmosphere prevailing in Finland after the country became independent in 1917, consciously set about erasing any Slavic traces from their work. It is, however, still possible to discern the influence of Skryabin in Raitio’s harmonic thinking, treatment of form and motif work (in his Fantasia poetica, Fantasia ecstatica and planned Fantasia chaotica, for example).

The fate of Ernest Pingoud, a composer of Baltic-German extraction, was quite another matter. Born in St. Petersburg, he had studied with Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov, Aleksandr Glazunov and others. He emigrated to Finland in 1918 in the aftermath of the Revolution, only to be accused of “musical Bolshevism” at the first concert of his works. Five years later he still described himself as a “Russian composer”.

While in St. Petersburg Pingoud had been employed as a music critic for the city’s German-language newspaper and his spiritual ideals were German-metaphysical, but his musical idol was Skryabin. Over in Finland his ideas, articles and compositions called forth virtually no response. The very suggestion of anything Russian was immediately stamped upon in the anti-Russian mood of the 1930s.

Slavonic melancholy was undoubtedly not the only cause of the untimely demise of the first wave of Finnish modernism, but it did wash over all composers in the 1930s. Merikanto and Raitio had mental breakdowns and Pingoud committed suicide by throwing himself under a train in 1942.


Musical fraternisation

One might well be forgiven for imagining that two wars (1939-40 and 1941-45) would have put an end to Finnish-Russian arts exchange for a very long time to come, but the end of the Second World War soon led to a flourishing revival of musical relations between the two countries.

The first signal was a visit to Helsinki by the Leningrad Philharmonic Orchestra conducted by Yevgeny Mravinsky in 1946. The Treaty of Friendship, Cooperation and Mutual Assistance signed by Finland and the Soviet Union in 1947 permitted a lively exchange of artists that blossomed alongside the pragmatic political liturgy.

The Finns were therefore fortunate to get to hear Richter, Oistrakh and many other Soviet artists effectively prevented by the Communist regime from appearing elsewhere in the Western world. The principle of reciprocity (the two states were, after all, equal in every respect) meant that many Finnish musicians were able to visit and study in St. Petersburg and Moscow.

The Finnish music institute system had even in earlier times had an eastern streak to it in the high targets it set and its training of soloists. Admiration for the achievements of the Soviet state made it try even harder in this respect, and the influence of the Russian string and piano school is still noticeable in Finland.

Once the war was over, Russian music ceased to be forbidden fruit for composers, too. The early works of Einar Englund or Einojuhani Rautavaara pay clear homage to Shostakovich, though Shostakovich was not to become a direct model until the 1970s, and above all in the works of Pehr Henrik Nordgren and Kalevi Aho.

Erik Tawaststjerna, the well-known Sibelius biographer and writer on music, visited Leningrad a number of times immediately after the war and crystallised his experiences as follows in 1952: “What would be a suitable epithet for the people of Leningrad? The thing that strikes one most is their awareness of their city’s history, its traditions and memories.

“Just think what the mature Leningradian has experienced in his or her lifetime: the last, hectic years of the tsarist regime, when political unrest was kindling beneath the galas and the splendour, when Diaghilev was staging the Firebird and Petrushka and the young Prokofiev was shocking the musical world with his Scythian Suite; the Revolution with all its vicissitudes, the war of intervention when the front passed close by the former imperial summer palaces and the people were mobilised to defend the threatened metropolis on the Neva; the radical twenties and the NEP period when the young Shostakovich was frantically absorbing the atonalism of Hindemith and Schönberg and when no experiments in music, the theatre and literature were too bold; the thirties, when the reins were tightened under the threat of the global mayhem about to break loose; the siege, during which the very existence of Leningrad once again hung in the balance; victory and rebuilding.”

All in all it has not been difficult for the Finns to identify with the fate of St. Petersburg. As the capital of the Empire it was the political and cultural apogee, but one that was very near. The changing of its name to Petrograd in 1914 seemed to reflect the Russians’ unstable, inconsistent nationality policy, the name St. Petersburg in fact being derived from Dutch, not German, for Peter the Great had studied shipbuilding in the Netherlands.

The importance of culture in the city renamed Leningrad and deprived of its capital status by the Soviets grew as a reminder of its past glory. Nothing remains today of the vibrant St. Petersburg modernism of the 1920s, however, for the Mariinsky Theatre, the St. Petersburg Philharmonic Orchestra and the St. Petersburg Conservatoire are just as conservative as they were under Soviet and Imperial rule.

The collapse of the Soviet Union and the lifting of party control over the arts have not yet unleashed a new wave of musical expression and experiment. There have, however, been some signs of the winds of change in the St. Petersburg of the nineties: Igor Rogalyov’s festival devoted to music from the avant-garde to the present day, the new music ensemble of Vsevolod Shmulevich and Svetlana Lavrova for composers aged 25-30, and the Sound Ways festival and ensemble of Aleksandr Radvilovich.

For the Finns, St. Petersburg has served as a window both on cosmopolitanism and on Russia. The relationship has been a love-hate one, the cultural exchange formal and fierce or free and diffuse, as it is at the moment. Russia and its people have always carried an aura of suspicion, but the Finns have been in a better position than most to understand their neighbours. The road to St. Petersburg still lies open and paved with opportunity.


Translation: Susan Sinisalo